Saturday, October 23, 2010

USA Science and Engineering Expo—a Science Fair on Steroids…

This weekend I’m in Washington D.C. to attend the USA Science and Engineering Expo and participate in a booth co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s TeraGrid and Blue Waters projects.

We have been planning the activity for eight months. The team includes booth boss and master facilitator, Robert Ping (TeraGrid EOT Assistant Director/Indiana University), and five of us from TeraGrid and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). One of our biggest fears—facilitating technology and paper hand-outs in the rain—was put to rest this week with a beautiful forecast. Since this is the first Expo, we didn’t know what to expect.

The Expo was conceived in response to the Obama administration’s desire to stimulate more interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers by “exposing children and families to new technologies that are strengthening communities, building careers, and stimulating economic growth.” The President’s Council of Advisers in Science and Technology, with help from a U.S. Department of Energy grant and funding from dozens of corporate sponsors, engaged more than 1,500 organizations to sponsor tents. Most brought really cool S.W.A.G. Since the National Mall shares borders with the National Gallery of Art and many museums of the Smithsonian Institution, there's a lot to do within walking distance, although the Expo alone could take days to cover.

This is the same National Mall where the Reverend Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. It's popular with political activists since it is a large, open public space located in the heart of Washington. While this isn’t the first time masses of people gathered there, it was the first time they arrived with passion for science, engineering, and technology!

The Expo venue is huge and covers slightly less than half of the National Mall, plus Wilson’s and Freedom Plazas. If you have never been to the National Mall, in your mind's eye you can visualize 309 acres or 237 football fields, so half is ~118 football fields (long sides together). The surrounding streets were blocked off by squad cars during the night and row after row of 10’ x 10’ white tents were erected. Several semi tractor trailers with mobile museums arrived. At 4:00 a.m., more trucks brought crates of “stuff” for each of the tents, including the most advanced technology and sophisticated science. Private security was provided to watch over everything while we slept. I venture to guess many will work overtime this weekend.

It's difficult to determine the size of the crowd here today. Since this is the first, there is no history upon which to draw. Planners had estimated 100,000 people would pass through over the weekend. The TeraGrid booth was always so packed, that it was difficult to enter the tent to retrieve literature. As soon as I would fill my arms with posters, booklets, crayons, and supercomputing coloring books, excited children and teachers would take them. I spent most of the day talking to parents in the street in front of the booth while their children lingered inside, checking out the “Little-Fe” cluster computer, 3D education modules, and iPads that we loaded with animated scientific visualizations and photographs of supercomputers.

One of the highlights of my day happened when Bill Bell (NCSA) and I were taking a lunch break while sitting on a curb about 100 yards from the booth. Bill saw a woman unfolding a TeraGrid poster to show it to someone else. She was pointing in the direction of the booth. I asked if they needed more posters. They were science teachers who wanted a stack of posters to take home for others. Additionally, some children asked for materials for their teachers back home.

It was great to see families spending time together and learning! Many had traveled great distances and spent the weekend (which isn’t inexpensive—the cheapest nearby hotel costs $200.00/night), but the event is free. I spoke with a young mom who was holding an active baby girl while big-brother looked at the TeraGrid booth technology. She told me that she had brought her 14-year-old son because he loves technology, but she brought her daughter so that she could learn from her brother’s excitement.

As TeraGrid's external relations coordinator, I often attend technology fairs and conferences where I talk about STEM careers with people from a variety of backgrounds, including children. Some may, or may not seem interested in the literature or what I have to say. Here, they are not only interested, I can't distribute the literature fast enough!  Most want multiple copies. Never before have I seen so many people in one place, of all ages, who are enthusiastic about science, engineering, and technology!

I’m exhausted and my feet hurt, but it feels good to have reached so many today and I am looking forward to tomorrow!

1 comment:

Catherine Gater said...

What a great account of a clearly very stimulating day! It would be great to see some photos...